Nubia as companion to Byzantium in Wiley-Blackwell’s Companion to Byzantium

In the last years, the major publishing houses have begun an interesting competition in producing handbooks about all topics possible (see for example HERE for Oxford’s on Byzantine Studies). Recently, I came across one of these impressive volumes in the library of humanities at the University of Bergen: “A Companion to Byzantium” edited by Liz James (2010).

book cover

The contents are built in four parts after a “Very, Very Short Introduction” by the editor and an introduction to “the Historiography of Byzantine History” by Fiona Haarer. Part I is titled “Being Byzantine” and deals with the Byzantine identity both from the perspective of the historian of Byzantium and through the eyes of the Byzantines themselves. Part II turns to religion and hosts papers about “God and the World”. The other two parts “discuss and problematize the two sources we have for information about the Byzantine world: “Reading Byzantine Texts” is the overarching theme of Part III, while Part IV raises “Some Questions in Material Culture” that look “at issues concerning some of the ways in which objects from Byzantium have been used to construct particular histories of the Byzantine world” (both quotes from James’ Introduction, and specifically p. 7). I have already picked up the chapters I will read during this first encounter with the “Companion”, and hereby I will comment upon a very welcome chapter in Part II, namely “Beyond Byzantium: the Non-Chalcedonian Churches” by Niall Finneran.

Finneran is known to me from his insightful and thought-provoking work on medieval Ethiopia. I was therefore certain that he would include a section on the Nubian Church in his contribution to Wiley-Blackwell’s Companion. And indeed, pages 205-207 are dedicated to Nubia. This is by itself a very positive addition, and moreover presented with very interesting points of view taken. For example, on the topic of Christianization, Finneran positions himself in line with those who propose that Justinian’s evangelization mission converted the king of Dongola and that subsequently he became “the instrument of conversion” (quote from the section on Ethiopia, p. 208). He also gives credit to the opinion that “Nubia was a central ideological battleground between the Melkite and anti-Chalcedonian factions” (quote from p. 207). Finally, he makes room for future discoveries on the role of monasticism in Nubian Christianity and the Makuritan society.

The terminology used, however, to describe the realities on the ground in Nubia are not always accurate. Makuria is written as “Makhuria”, while in the opening phrase of the section it is stated that “Nubia is centered upon the region between the first and second cataracts of the Nile in what is now southern Egypt/northern Sudan”. In other words, Finneran’s Nubia is identified with Lower Nubia and it becomes very difficult for the reader to realize that this is just a fraction of the medieval Nubian world extending until south of the junctions of the Blue and White Niles at Khartoum. Makuria’s heartlands were  in fact in Upper Nubia and together with Alwa extended into Central Sudan. Nubian Studies have suffered from this lack of nuancing between the various regions, therefore the mistake is probably due to a misreading of things implicitly used as working hypotheses in the frame of Nubiology; namely that the evidence from Lower Nubia can be used to describe the culture of the entire Middle Nile region, i.e. Lower and Upper Nubia, as well as parts of Central Sudan.

The “Companion” was published in 2010, a year that marked the beginning of many important publications in medieval Nubian studies, both as books and as collections of articles. Thus, Finneran’s most welcome addition of Nubia as a companion to Byzantium in this “Companion to Byzantium” can surely be updated in the future. If this does not happen in another handbook, at least the participation of Nubiologists in academic venues of Byzantine Studies can help fill the gaps.

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